Friday, August 18, 2017

Kieslowski’s Dekalog: The Father of TV Miniseries

Poster of Dekalog Miniseries
Some thirty years ago, the great Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski decided to make a TV series based on or rather inspired by the Ten Commandments. About a week ago, we decided to watch it in its entirety. Thankfully, my wife was willing to give this series a try and remained my patient screen companion throughout all this artsy binge-watching. The issue with my wife, however, was less related to art movies but more with the subject and content manner, the series being, at least nominally, related to religion, which she, for better or worse, does not have a very positive relationship with.

If that is your only deterrent for staying away from this magnificent series, rest assured that it should not pose any impediment. Sure, the Vatican has applauded it but Kieslowski is not a religious fanatic, far from it. In fact, he is not didactic but presents us with moral dilemmas that will make us think about the subject matter. Yet in all of this, we, like his characters, appear to have free will to embrace and accept the ideas or not, and we are encouraged throughout to draw our own conclusions.  

In fact, the series is rather loosely based on the Ten Commandments. Most of the times, the Biblical connection highlights some of the issues raised in the given episode, but at other times the link seems a bit far-fetched. Yet throughout, there is one thing that can definitely be agreed upon: The whole series bristles with creativity and makes us reflect on these religious and spiritual matters. In fact, there is so much thought and reflection crystallized and condensed into each episode that one ought to follow the advice of film critic Roger Ebert and watch only one episode at a time, then spend the rest of the night discussing it with friends.

Almost all the episodes are filled with nostalgic and melancholic sentiments that are underscored with the beautiful haunting score by Kieslowski’s regular composer Zbiegniew Preisner, but the series opens on a decisively sad and tragic note. It is the first commandment of not having any gods before God. In this case, it is amplified to the human fallacy of trusting technology a little bit too much.

The series was shot some thirty years ago where computers were the exception not the norm, so it is interesting how Kieslowski foreshadows and predicts the advent of and dependence on technology. At one point, the professor alludes to Artificial Intelligence and claims that at some point in time it will have its own likes and dislikes and hence be more and more similar - if not equivalent - to human beings.

In the first episode, the computers are used not only to compute and offer predictions but they are also programmed to switch lights on and off and to turn on the water faucet. At a crucial point, the computer is used to calculate the thickness of ice and to decide whether it is safe to skate upon the nearby frozen lake. His ten-tear-old son Pawel wants to try out his new ice skates for the occasion.

His father is adamantly, one might say even blindly, embracing technology at the expense of any kind of spirituality. His sister, Pawel’s aunt, however, is pious and wants to inculcate religion into her nephew, which the father despite his personal beliefs does not object to. 

The boy himself is curious about life and death and has started asking difficult questions. What happens when we die, Pawel asks his father. What will remain of us? His father’s responses seem limited to the boy’s understanding of the world, whereas his aunt offers answers to soothe his inquisitive soul.

In the end, the calculations end up being wrong: the ice breaks and the boy drowns. The father rechecks his numbers and cannot understand how this could have happened. It can serve as a reminder that we cannot be certain of anything and that there is an indeterminate and mysterious variable in all our life’s undertakings. Call it a freak accident or spiritual white noise. But whatever it is, it is there and reminds us of our fragility. The Titanic was the beacon of human hope / hubris and it sank like a stone.

A second and, in my viewpoint, more disturbing interpretation could be that God is punishing us for our transgressions and for not adhering to the first commandment. In that sense, the father is chastised for embracing the false idol technology over God. In other words, it is God who has the last laugh.

But I do not think that is the way Kieslowski would want us to feel. My evidence would lie in the recurring character of the young man with the sad eyes. He shows up in almost all the episodes and especially at crucial moments of the tales. In the first one, he sits at a bonfire by the frozen lake, and he has eye contact with the father who carefully stomps upon the ice, testing his hypothesis.

The young man is not a Christ-like figure but more like a watchful angel, similar to the reflective angels in the brilliant film Wings of Desire. He watches humans but does not - or rather cannot - interfere in their decision-making. He is sad because he already knows the outcome, but the humans do not understand and cannot see the big picture or the full gamut and consequence of their actions. In the words of Christ, they do not know what they are doing.

As you can see, Kieslowski presents us a complex moral tale and it is never a matter of black and white. To give another example, let us take a look at the commandment of not killing. In this fifth episode, an irresponsible, careless and cruel young man kills a taxi driver for no discernible reason. Then the second half shows us the aftermath, he himself is facing death in the form of capital punishment.

Is an eye for an eye the appropriate response? By making the perpetrator so repugnant, one might think it so but then we see his own despair in front of impending doom. Is the government not engaging in another killing that is almost as cruel and heartless as the one committed by the criminal? The young lawyer of the film asks that question. Who is this capital punishment for? Is it to punish the criminal? Or to protect the innocent?

These are moral ambiguities presented in each of the episodes, and the answer is never easy. At times, the scenarios seem abstract and heavy-handed, especially in the case of the pregnant woman who is trying to decide whether to have an abortion or not. It all depends on whether her husband will die of cancer as he is not and cannot be the father of the child.

If her sterile husband survives, she will abort because the child is of the lover she has taken during his convalescence (!) and so she asks the doctor about her husband’s odds. The doctor is presented with an ethical dilemma. To his surprise and against medical odds, it turns out that the patient is, in fact, recovering. But if the doctor tells her that, she will go ahead with the abortion. But if he lies to her and claims that her husband is dying, she will not do so and the child will survive.

Yet despite its abstract framing, the episode is still filled with life and feeling. We wrestle with the doctor, our main protagonist, whether he should keep his oath by not using the Lord’s name in vain or whether he should deliberately lie to this woman; to make matters worse, she asks the doctor to swear that he is indeed telling the truth! In other words, here is a perfect example in which Kieslowski seems to side with actually breaking the commandment, that is, it is OK to use the Lord’s name in vain if it can save a baby’s life!

This situation is brought up again in the eighth episode, at least theoretically, as a moral dilemma: In a university classroom, the female professor believes that the doctor made the right choice in saving the child’s life over following the commandment. Ironically, the same professor has followed the commandment of NOT bearing false witness to her neighbor, which put the life of a young Jewish girl in danger! So she does not do as she preaches in class even though she ends up sticking to her commandment.

Or consider how Kieslowski deals with the commandment thou shalt not steal! In that episode, the young mother “steals” her own child! She was impregnated by her school teacher, so her mother decides to claim motherhood of her own granddaughter. Since the real mother, the young defiant girl Majka, is not allowed to live with her own child Ania, she decides to kidnap her daughter from her mother Ewa, the child’s grandmother.

In other words, this young woman Majka is stealing what (or rather who) is rightfully her own, but in this case the government does not recognize her as the official mother because the young girl Ania is registered under the name of her grandmother Ewa posing as her mother. The problem is Majka is quite irresponsible and emotionally unstable, while her mother Ewa would provide a safer home for the child Ania.

I could go on with the discussion of each episode but it would take up too much space here in merely one post. Each of the episodes is self-contained but it is the interconnectedness that makes them stand out as an integrated whole. Most of the characters live in the same housing project. At times, the paths of some of the characters cross. It is usually as a minor note, but it provides delight to the careful viewer.

For example, the doctor in one of the episodes happens to take the elevator with the characters of another episode. Or the recently departed father who does not appear in the final episode had a brief scene in Episode Eight, so we know what he looks like! The girl Ania also reappears in a brief shot in Episode Nine! These small scenes tend to underline the overall message of the whole series as an ambitious and monumental undertaking rarely seen on television up to then (we are talking pre-Twin Peaks era).


The strength of Kieslowski lies in presenting us abstract thoughts in concrete ways. We feel for and with the characters. We may not like them or may not agree with them; we may judge them or we may remain neutral, but be it as it may, Kieslowski presents us intimate and life-like stories of simple people. By magnifying the small and ordinary, he gives us a glimpse of the big picture: The workings of the universe with or without God in it. That interpretation is best left at the personal discretion of the viewer. 

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Silence as the Absence of God’s Voice

Movie poster of movie Silence (2016)
What makes Scorsese’s movie Silence (2016) brilliant is not what it states but what it implies. Although many have hailed it as a testament to faith and by extension an appraisal of Christianity and its values, the film offers more questions than answers. If you approach it from different angles, you may spot troubling messages regarding faith and religion.

The movie is set in feudal Japan where the government has decided to ban Christianity and it is persecuting Christian missionaries alongside many recently converted and faithful locals. Under the leadership of the Japanese Inquisitor, the Christian priests and their followers are given a chance to apostatize: If they stamp upon - and in other cases spit on - the image of Christ, they shall be spared.

Various missionaries cannot do so and are ready to go through immense suffering and to sacrifice themselves as martyrs hence becoming pillars of the Christian faith. Others break down and reject their religion to continue living. When rumors hit the Vatican that the renowned head priest Ferreira has apostatized and publicly denied the Catholic Church, two of his idealistic disciples, two Jesuit priests reject this as mere gossip and hearsay and decide to head to the dangerous territory to find out for themselves and see it with their own eyes.

If they can prove that this were untrue or even better that the priest had died for his faith, it would be a great boon for Christianity across the world. The opposite, however, would destabilize the strength and fortitude of the religion and plant seeds of doubt among its adherents. The Jesuit priests soon realize that their religion has many persecuted followers among the simple Japanese country people, many of whom are to ready to die for harboring these two priests.

Eventually and it was merely matter of time, both priests are caught; one of them, Rodrigues ends up meeting his pale-faced mentor Ferreira who in a cruel ironic twist of faith encourages his pupil to apostatize as he has done. In fact, Ferreira has even acquired a Japanese name and identity and is known for publishing anti-Christian writings. The world of the young priest Rodrigues falls apart and he ends up rejecting his faith publicly. On the other hand, the other priest Garupe, who was stricter and sterner in his beliefs, dies in his attempt to save Japanese Christians.

All this set up provides us then with an important array of thoughts and questions. First off, the most relevant one would be the problem of evil: how can God allow his followers to suffer such torment and never intervene on their behalf? Priests and Japanese Christians endure horrific methods and sequences of torture and abuse by the hands of the Japanese and it seems that throughout all of this, God guards His silence.

In fact, the Jesuit priest Rodrigues claims he has not heard God’s voice since youth and complains why He has not made himself heard to his ardent worshiper. Doubts begin to fill his mind and it is only towards the end of the film where we appear to hear the voice of Jesus telling him that he was there with this priest all this time suffering by his side. At the end of the movie, the priest’s death is followed by Japanese funeral procedures but a close-up reveals him secretly clutching onto his cross.

The ending can be interpreted as a reinforcement of faith and that despite lifelong suffering and continuous eroding doubt, the priest has never actually denied his faith. That is a valid reading; yet there is no certainty in this. We do not see him arrive at the Gates of Heaven, which for obvious reasons is avoided as it would reek of kitsch. In other words, we never know whether all his pain and suffering was worth it and that his was indeed the true religion.

One of the indications here would be the title itself: Silence. This applies to an absence of not only sound but of God’s own existence. There is a possibility, and this was the nagging doubt of our priest, that his religion may be merely make-believe. There was doubt previously in Scorsese’s masterful The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), but it was overcome at the end as Jesus found himself back on the cross and died.

In that instance, we assume that Jesus preserved his faith and managed to be resurrected as the Scriptures tell us.  But again, this is an assumption that Scorsese only implies; the music is joyful and celebratory but we never see Christ actually go to heaven or resurrect with our own eyes. This is different from Pasolini’s version of The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), which for the most part has a documentary feel to it but ends up showing us the after-effects of Christ’s death, the trembling of the Earth and that he has arisen from the dead.

So the question remains, how do we know if this religion is true after all? Catholic religion has survived such a long time because of its structure and philosophy. Belief in it is universal and standardized and is not open to interpretation. It is beyond nationalities or ethnicity. It is run internationally like an organization with its headquarters in the Vatican. This is as true today as it was back then.

By way of comparison, the Protestant faith has not had such a uniform run. Since many are open to voice their doubts, it has splintered into many factions most of which don’t see eye to eye with each other. It is, for better or worse, not as solid and unified as the Catholic Church.

But the question remains, which is the true religion? What if Catholics are wrong and they are not adhering to the true religion? This is a conversation the priest has with the Japanese Inquisitor. What if it turns out that Buddhism is true after all? Is it not arrogance to assume that Christians are right and even conquer other countries in the process?

As the Inquisitor says, the Japanese have their own religion, culture and beliefs, all of which they would like to preserve. So with what right do these Christian missionaries come and usurp their territory? In that sense, we can see the political workings and machinations of religion. It is not merely a matter of faith but cuts much deeper than that.

The priest responds that Christianity is beyond nations and borders because it is the truth. But why did it then not firmly set foot in Japan? Because the Japanese soil is rotten and truth cannot grow there, this is the young priest’s weak answer to that question. Suddenly, we realize that the Japanese are not driven by sadistic motives but that they try to preserve their culture and traditions, all of which they perceive being under attack by the Christian threat.

The arrogance of the Catholic Church can also be felt in its methods of punishing sinners and non-believers. This is not touched upon in the film but as I was watching the Japanese torture of the Christians, I could not stop thinking of the horrendous and horrific ways that Inquisitors of the Holy Church had tortured and tormented so many souls. What if all of this was in vain and these people suffered and died meaninglessly by the hands of the priests?

Of course, the priests believed that they were doing a favor to their victims as they were supposedly cleansing all their sins through immense and imposed suffering and that the souls of their victims would be free to enter the Pearly Gates. But that seed of doubt is the question here, what if it is not true? Then these people had been brutally killed for nothing.

Yet apart from being a usurping power, did the priests truly manage to conquer the hearts and minds of this country folk? The head priest Ferreira says no. These people in their simplicity and due to their previous cultural beliefs and upbringing had a faulty understanding of the Christian faith. In an earlier scene of baptism, we witness how a young couple assumed that they were all in heaven after their child was baptized and the Jesuit priest had to correct their views and say that this was not so and that paradise was another place indeed.

Furthermore, the Japanese had the belief that the sun was Jesus and that he did not arise three days later but every day instead. Such misunderstandings and misinterpretations led these people to follow a religion that was neither Christianity nor their own cultural belief but rather a hybrid of both. In that sense, the missionaries had effectively failed propagating the true religion instead giving birth to something else completely.

That is another issue that arises. Since each and everyone sees and interprets the world in a different manner, how can one have universal beliefs then? And how do we know that they are all aligned? Even among priests there are discrepancies and they draw their ideas and inspirations from the Holy Book, which has contradictions itself and can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Which is the truth after all? On this essential question, the movie remains uncomfortably silent.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Woody Allen’s Match Point: A Meditation on Chance and Luck

Opening scene from the movie Match Point
The opening sequence of Woody Allen’s Match Point sums up not only a crucial point about the game of tennis but serves also as a metaphor for life’s (seeming) coincidences. The tennis ball balances on the edge of the net and there are two potential options: either the ball falls back into the player’s court and the match is lost or it will creep over to the opponent’s court and mark a win. A whole match could be decided in the blink of a moment and at that point, expertise or experience take a backseat because it is all in the invisible hands of the tennis gods.

This may seem haphazard but as an avid watcher of tennis matches in my youth I can vouch for the importance of the balancing act of the net. There are more than a handful of games that were decided by it. One of the most memorable ones was an early round series of the US Open between the unseeded but terrific Derrick Rostagno going up against the seasoned tennis champion Boris Becker. An upset was on the lips of commentators and spectators as the champ was facing a couple of match points against himself.

As I recall it, Rostagno was about to hit the winning volley to end the game but, lo and behold, the ball clipped the net and flew higher than expected. In the heat of the moment, Rostagno’s reflex was to quickly hit the ball and it ended out of bounds. This tilted what would have been a sure win for the newcomer to a heart-breaking loss.

In fact, Boris Becker won also another match, the ATP final against Ivan Lendl where the rally in the tie-breaker seemed to go on forever until the German was lucky once again; this blond tennis-god favored superstar won the championship as a result.

So Woody Allen indeed hits a raw nerve of any tennis player, professional or amateur. The net becomes the blind line of chance, a random stroke of luck. In the movie, the main character, the occasional tennis instructor Chris Wilton makes an important personal contact at a tennis lesson; he meets Tom Hewett. By chance, he gets invited to the opera during which this ambitious young man meets Tom’s sister Chloe who, as luck will have it, happens to fall in love with him, head over heels.

Suddenly, Chris has the golden opportunity to gain access to sudden wealth; through his relationship with her, he manages to land a job that comes with a personal chauffeur as an enticing perk, and thereafter, marriage formally secures and binds him to a life of continuous wealth. 

Yet then there is the curveball in the curvy shapes of Tom’s fiancée, the sexy Nola Rice. Against all odds and reason, he is immediately taken by her and indeed lusts for her. His desire is so strong that he throws caution to the wind and his persistence finally pays off: He manages to make love to her on a stormy day. 

But that seems not enough, so he continues to pursue her while she is giving him mixed messages. When his friend Tom breaks off the engagement, Chris happens to run into her again and seizes once more and even more tempestuously this new situation and opportunity with Nola.

It is all a matter of luck to him. It was a coincidence that he ran into her after her break-up, so he wastes no time. She gives in to him after a while and he has his way. Yet as she is both unstable and penniless, a struggling actress who simply does not seem to land any gigs, he has no intention of leaving his wife Chloe for her. As he explains to a friend, he has gotten so used to the life of luxurious comfort that he cannot imagine himself being without it anymore.

The irony of it all, fate always has the last laugh, is that his mistress Nola becomes pregnant. It is ironical because he and his wife Chloe have been trying very hard for a child, mostly on the latter’s insistence and his lover gets impregnated during a single misstep. That only time Nola was not protected leads to this - in his eyes - inconvenient pregnancy. Chris even calls it an immense moment of bad luck.

And he puts his fate into the hands of luck. If there is morality, then immoral deeds ought to be punished. Yet if he is not punished, then there is no moral authority or guidance and the world runs on sheer and random coincidence. He puts this to the test by meticulously planning a murder. This is similar to Raskolnikov’s belief that he is morally superior to other beings and that he should get away with anything, including murder. Incidentally, in an early scene of the movie, we see Chris read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

And then there is the culminating point of irony: Blind chance is indeed on his side. In a brilliant sequence, we see how a piece of jewelry gets caught up on the ledge of the river and falls back on the pavement and this shall serve as an important piece of evidence that will not come to haunt but rather serves him well to escape punishment. 

Although his illicit extramarital relationship with Nola comes to light via an unexpected (and rather unlucky) item, namely the diary kept by the victim, it is not enough to incriminate him and that piece of jewelry absolves him completely and puts the blame of the murder on another person completely.

This movie is rather bleak in its message but it is quite brilliant in its ruminations on luck. What if the protagonist is right and we are simply driven by luck and happenstance? How many of our outcomes do not depend on chance? The meeting of one’s beloved? The landing of a job? An accident? A fatal illness?

And if that is so, how can we escape it or turn it into good luck? Are superstitions helpful? Or should we pray to a supernatural being to win over favors? We often think or assume we are in charge, and in some situations, we may be, but it is like the tip of the iceberg: There is so much brooding beneath it all and it might just come down to a stroke of luck after all.